Keith's Crappy Videogame Blog

Mars: War Logs (PC, 2013, France): A Massive Heart
November 18, 2013, 2:22 am
Filed under: Mars: War Logs (PC, 2013, France)

I guess there’s an inherent danger when a small studio with a big idea wants to create a game that might echo an existing monster-sized title. And I’m not talking about lack of resources or time or creative energy. What I mean is this: Let’s pretend Inky-Dinky Game Developer wants to make a cooperative first-person-shooter-RPG-hybrid with cel-shaded environments, tons of acerbic wit, dozens of humorous characters, and branching narratives which takes place in a sci-fi-desert-in-space. Of course, Inky Dinky is more than welcome to do so, even if it takes a lifetime. But any consumer approaching Inky-Dinky’s final product will be doing so with the specter of “Borderlands” in the background. There’s no escaping it. And the chances of Inky-Dinky Developer being able to create a similarly massive, polished, Pandorian experience is highly unlikely.

The scenario I just described is exactly the sticky issue revolving around the ambitious RPG “Mars: War Logs” (originally just called “Mars,” by the way). Only the developer’s name is Spiders (probably best known for the downloadable mini-hit “Of Orcs and Men”), and the monster-triple-A-title inspiring them is Bioware’s nebula-sized-mega-hit-trilogy “Mass Effect.”

Well…sort of. But not really. Okay, this requires clarification: Like “Mass Effect,” Spider’s “Mars: War Logs” 1) Takes place in space, 2) Involves a stratified society of humans and aliens (well, at least one of each), 3) Contains both main and side missions, 4) Has a tiered skill tree with specialties, 5) Allows for upgrading and crafting of both armor and weapons, 6) Is in third-person-perspective and made with an in-house engine, 7) Includes branching dialogue-trees, 8) Presents the protagonist with moral choices which can alter the story, and 9) Includes various cohorts with different specialties (that  you can choose amongst) who can follow orders and fight alongside you (not efficiently, but that’s their problem).

But here’s the rub: With approximately 800 employees and a net worth of at least $860 million, when the name “Bioware” is on the label, the game is expected to have a certain gravity, a certain heft, a certain polish, a certain…MASSiveness…to it. But in the case of Spiders—a French development team of 20 folks with an operating budget of…well, something considerably less than $860 million—the very idea of trying to create a game that even dares to stand in the giant shadow of “Mass Effect” is incredibly brave…or batshit crazy.

Of course, as underdog gamers, we know this. We understand the dynamics; we understand the difference of scale. Even as intrepid players who like to give the little guy a leg up and play games that most people have never heard of (or would dismiss in disgust), we could never expect a small labor-of-love like “Mars: War Logs” to even approach the awesomeness of Captain Shepherd’s trilogy. But…the comparison, and the desire, is there nevertheless. Even though we know better, we still want to discover “Mass Effect” all over again for the first time, right? We want to feel those same feelings, and have those same adventures, that we had with Bioware’s epic. And it is for that reason we so desperately want to give a game like “Mars: War Logs” (regardless of its terrible name) a try. For those reasons, we desperately want it to succeed.

And, thankfully, it does succeed. But it succeeds on its own terms. This game isn’t in the same league as Bioware’s epic trilogy, this much is clear. Within minutes of booting the game up (and upon seeing the ho-hum graphics come to half-life on the screen), reality taps you on the shoulder, and you know it is time to pack your high-falutin’ desires away and to let this little game be what it is, and to play it honestly. And if you do that, it is a damn fine game, an intriguing game, and a surprising achievement for such a small group of developers.

Fortunately, there are concrete ways to “properly orient” your expectations prior to playing in order to get the most out of the game. I’ll get to that in a moment. But one element that requires no such rationalization is the game’s backstory; “Mars: War Logs” is complete with a compelling universe and mythos. At the outset of the game, Mars has been colonized for 200 years by the people of Earth. Some of the planet has been terraformed—for example, a few cities have been built, as well as some agricultural areas for growing food and producing breathable air. Some research centers have been established too, and some livestock are successfully bred on the planet. But terraformation, in large part, has not succeeded across the entire planet, and little more than enclaves actually exist.

FB7To further complicate this half-successful colonization of Mars, 70 years into the project, an event known as “The Turmoil” occurred—Mars tilted on its axis, affecting the entire solar system. Many of the half-completed cities were destroyed by exposure to solar radiation, and communications with Earth were permanently disrupted. Over time, some of the original survivors of The Turmoil mutated due to the radiation (they sort of ended up looking like walking-talking prunes), and the next generation of offspring eventually became known as The Dust. Water quickly began to dry up in the wake of the catastrophe, and in no time several warring water companies (all trying to control the limited supply) overtook the Mars government.

Now, approximately 130 years after The Turmoil, the mutant Dust co-exist uneasily among normal humans (who survived the cataclysm unchanged), and all of them have gathered under the banner of one of four rival water companies—each having different philosophies, armies, and histories. In essence, the water companies are like tribes, or different religious sects, who are at war with one another. Technomancers are Nazi-like electric-magic-wielding overseers who run each of the water companies and are feared by most of society.

The story begins in Camp 19, a war prison tucked between the red cliffs of Mars. Roy, the dark-haired, 30-something, swashbuckling protagonist (who himself is a rogue Technomancer), and his teenage sidekick, Innocence Smith, were both soldiers for the young, upstart water company named Aurora. (By the way, if you are wondering about a name like Innocence, all citizens of the Aurora water company have been given “virtue names” to replace their regular names [it’s just part of the culture], so you’ll regularly encounter folks with monikers like Courtesy, Sobriety, Tenacity, and Honesty. While most of these “virtue names” befit the character [Innocence, an inexperienced teenage idealist being one of them], some of these names are obviously ironic in nature. For example, Charity and Faith are hookers, Humility is a pervert, and Serenity is a drug dealer. Being a nonconformist and heroic outsider, Roy has forsaken his virtue name, which is Temperance. He says very early on in the game, “It doesn’t suit me.”)

Just a quick heads-up: As usual in my game-narrative discussions, there will be some PRETTY SERIOUS SPOILERS here and there, so read with caution if you’ve not played the game are and planning to do so. Anyway, Roy and Innocence have both been captured by rival army/water company Abundance. Roy first meets the new arrival, Innocence, just as he is about to be raped in the prison’s “sand” showers. (This is the opening cinematic, actually; while it is not explicit, it is attention getting to the say the least. This is certainly an “M for Mature” title, if you were wondering.) Roy clobbers the would-be rapist, rescuing Innocence, and he quickly becomes Roy’s companion. This dynamic duo and their many counterparts assume they will all be released once the war is officially declared over—but no one knows when, or if, that will ever happen.

And Roy doesn’t want to wait around to find out; this is why he has devised an elaborate escape plan, and he needs Innocence to do some of the footwork and fetching. This is where the typical RPG objectives come in: Find a way to divert some weapons, find a place to hide them, help to create a diversion for the guards, obtain some precious water for the upcoming trip…you get the idea. Along the way, there are numerous side-quests, such as helping a more friendly prison guard obtain a medical leave, solving a little infection problem with the alien guard dogs becoming rabid and attacking everyone—and other nice-guy duties.

The next chapter takes Roy and Innocence to the town of Shadowlair, Innocence’s hometown where his parents still reside, and where Roy once lived as well. As wanted men, the two are attacked by every soldier they encounter, and much fighting ensues—although the locals leave them alone. Upon entering town, the two discover that Innocence’s parents’ house (and place of business) have been razed to the ground. Since both of Innocence’s parents were past member of the anti-government militia, Roy assumes that they were killed for their political beliefs and actions against the water companies. Amidst doing a number of side quests—solving some serial murders, helping a hooker make a bank deposit, clearing a storefront of junkies for the owner (and other even-nicer-guy duties)—the ultimate goal is to find and meet the organizers of the resistance, who may know something of Innocence’s parents’ demise. Eventually the game asks you to make a choice between joining the resistance or joining a rogue faction operating secretly within the government. Both groups have the same goal in mind, and that is to declare war on the Technomancers. These electricity-wielding neo-Nazis were originally put into place as war officers, but over time they gained too much control and are now threatening everything. Unfortunately, the two groups vying for your attention are also at odds with one another, and the game does force a choice on you. This choice, I imagine, is a major branching in the narrative and action, and adds significant replayability here. (I only played the game once, so I can’t say for sure how much it all changes depending on the choice you make.)

And like any good play (and many good games), “Mars” is divided into three distinct acts. Part three occurs in a heavily-fought-over hydroponics plant called Green Hope—which is just as dusty-brown-red as the rest of the game regardless of the name. The site of a historically bloody battle, Green Hope is really just a mass grave with a farm on top of it. But an enclave of rogue Technomancers have congregated here, and they are employing massive earth-moving machines to dig a giant crater in hopes of uncovering…something. Roy’s job is to find out what by infiltrating their headquarters. Though I’ve already revealed some spoilers, I’ll leave the finale for you to discover on your own, but as you can imagine it involves a lot of fighting, a sudden (and not so surprising) change of loyalty, and some pleading for leniency. As Roy heads out of town and away from all the mess, the game ends on a tentatively positive note; while there is some tense hope for the future, Roy faces the gritty reality that Mars—and the men inhabiting it—are extremely broken.  I liked it.

Now, I feel inclined to help any readers who may not have had the chance to play the game by making some suggestions. Specifically, there are several concrete ways to check your Mass-Effect-influenced expectations in order to get the most out of this game. The most prominent is scale: The play spaces in “Mars: War Logs” are smaller than you’re probably dreaming of (if you are using third-person-shooter-RPGs like “Mass Effect” as a yardstick, that is). The developers attempt to suggest spaces are bigger, and this is especially true if you look upwards to see man-made structures in the distance spiraling towards Mars’ red skies or downwards over cliffs to see gargantuan waves of dust blowing across the planet’s surface miles away.

But these are for effect only; when you get right down to it, the actual “walkin’ around spaces” your character occupies, loots, and fights in are on the small side. Fortunately, there are many of them, joined together with doors, ladders, or scalable barriers that separate the spaces, which don’t require any significant loading times. (There is a “door-opening/ladder-climbing/barrier-mantling” animation accompanying each a one of these transitions, but it can immediately be skipped with the press of a cancel button—a button you will eventually be using a lot.) But a word of advice before playing: Scale back those larger-than-life expectations of strolling across an endless Mars landscape completing quests—that’s not happening here. Instead, generally speaking, you’ll find yourself running back and forth between lookalike, town-square-sized areas, rooms, hallways, and the random tunnel, to meet your objectives.

Next, while there are a very nice number of cutscenes (which are expertly framed and professionally paced–moving the narrative along superbly), the animations suffer either from budget or technical constraints. Mouth animations during conversations, in particular, are on the rough side. Body movements are correspondingly stiff too. On a positive note, speaking of dialogue, there are a decent number of well-written conversations (with choices of response) which helps to immerse you in the world and helps to build characters’ personalities and your relationships to them. The game boasts upwards of 50 different NPCs to interact with in some way. (Some of the characters are dismissed as soon as you talk to them just once, while others have deeper dialogue trees associated with them. Also, sometimes the dialogue choices don’t keep pace with the narrative of the game—for instance, at one point after some characters in the game had died, I was told by someone who knew they had died that I should speak to them to find something out. Roy isn’t a ghost-whisperer, so this made no sense at all. Fortunately, it didn’t affect the game, but it shows the technical complexities involved in constructing a game of this type.) Some reviewers have said that while the number of NPCs to interact with is nice, none of it matters since you will not really make a serious connection with any of them. Again, if looking at this title through Mass-Effect-goggles, yes you will be sorely disappointed. However, take those glasses off for a minute and you’ll see there are at least some distinct personalities (if even clichéd) on display here, and the main characters all have some tales of woe worth hearing.

And since I’ve mentioned the voicing, apparently the voicework included in the first version of the final product was less than stellar (which became especially apparent in the English translation of the game, where dialogue choices and subtitles were not matching with characters’ poorly acted spoken words—as well as general translation errors). A number of the extant English reviews of this game that you’ll find on the net cry out in horror over the awful voice acting. Consumer complaints about this came to Spiders’ attention, and the development team immediately hired English voice actors in the UK and had many of the 90,000 words in the game re-voiced.

This reworked version was the one I played, and I have to say that I found the voicework quite superb, really. The voices are distinct, they all sound age-appropriate (especially Roy’s teenage sidekick, Innocence), and the spoken words matched the on-screen text about 90% of the time, with little or no translation errors. There are exceptions in quality: Mary, a Technomancer who eventually joins your troupe (and is one of the romance-able characters– Yes, romance abounds on Mars!), sounds unbelievably braindead [which is sort of explained by the story]. Regardless, if you play these types of underdog games, you know how horrendous the acting can get. And this game earned an “A” in my book regarding all facets of the dialogue.

Alright, the next element of the game that requires realistic expectations is the combat. (No surprise there, right?) If you have typical third-person hack-n-slashers in your repertoire (“God of War” maybe, or “The Witcher” maybe), some of this will feel familiar. On the surface, fighting sounds like it would be great, especially considering the variety of approaches you can take. For instance, you have a choice of melee weapons that are upgradeable in several ways. You also have a nail gun. You also can shoot an electric arc out of a wrist mechanism you steal from a Technomancer you defeat about one-third through the game. This is also upgradeable. With this same device, you can create a temporary shield-bubble to enclose you on all sides when in combat and also create a shockwave to push enemies away. This gismo can also electrify your melee weapon, making it deal significant damage. (I used this often.)

Likewise, Roy has a handful of physical moves—a combat roll, a parry, a kick, a guard break…and he can even grab a handful of red Mars sand and toss it in an enemy’s eyes! Ow, scratchy! Most of these weapons and maneuvers are accessible via an extensive radial menu that, when accessed, slows the on-screen action to a crawl. (More “Mass Effect” influences.) If you want to creep up on enemies for a douchey backstab and deal extra damage, there are upgradeable stealth options too. Nice!

Uhhh…but not so nice. Targeting an enemy with any of these attacks is hit-and-miss; like many third-person slashers, aiming (in the traditional third-person-over-the-shoulder sense) isn’t how this game operates. Enemies (both humans and monsters) are typically encountered in packs of three to five—and in some cases six or seven in later chapters. You can target any single enemy in the group with a key/button push, and a red ring appears around that enemy (which is moveable from one target to another). Your attacks will focus specifically on that individual. But targeting also limits your movement and can lock the camera view, which can seriously hinder a quick escape in case you are being walloped—so I generally avoided it and went swinging and shooting wildly into the crowd without targeting anyone specifically.

Maybe this was not the way Spiders wants players to approach combat, but generally, battles felt like a random, super-chaotic button-mashing affair; I rarely felt like I was in any kind of control while fighting (regardless of the radial menu slowing down time). All I eventually came to know is that after getting in ten or so whacks among the bunched-up pursuers, I had to begin rolling about the place like an insane gymnast because my health-bar was depleting. And then I would continue to roll in a large circle for a while (with the pack of dudes in pursuit) as my health s-l-o-w-l-y regenerated before continuing the battle. Much later in the game, after Roy leveled up considerably and applied a variety of perks, running away became less essential, but still. Eh.

One aspect of combat I came to despise: Although you may be standing right in front of a door you’ve opened a dozen times before, when enemies in an area are alerted to your presence, all the doors suddenly lock, and you can no longer run (you can suddenly do a combat roll instead). Yes, with each encounter, Roy is essentially locked into an arena until all foes are defeated. I understand that if Roy could simply leave an area (that the enemies cannot), the player might run full-tilt through the entire game without ever engaging in combat. But still…magically locked doors are irritating. The fact that many of the areas respawn entire troops of foes every time you travel through them doesn’t help much either–and, yes, backtracking is a regular necessity in this game. (One note: I learned this too late, but I believe that in some chapters, you can obtain certain clothes/disguises [like a soldier’s uniform] which will stop many of the constant attacks and help move the game forward a bit more quickly. But of course, this also means less looting of downed enemies.)

One combat-related aspect I appreciated though: After an enemy is down and writhing on the ground, Roy can drain all the water from the foe’s body using a handy extractor, hence killing him. (Water, known as Serum, is essentially the in-game currency.) Doing so basically gives Roy negative karma, and this can change some minor story and skill elements of the game. Otherwise, you can leave enemies wriggling on the ground and just take their stuff, if you want to be a “good” guy. But again this still doesn’t stop them from magically regaining their footing the next time you pass through the area to repeat the same old dance.

One more expectation to check at the door: Graphically, the game does require your kindness. In his review, Jim Sterling at Destructoid described the look of the game by simply saying “Well, it’s a Spiders game.” I guess if you’re hip, you’re supposed to know what that means. But I’m not, and I don’t, so here’s the skinny: The game is competently drawn, but the in-house Silk engine is not capable of giving us the Grade A textures, lighting, and animations that other blockbusters do. Colors can be sort of harsh and heavy at times—and most of those colors are, not surprisingly—very, very rust-colored. After all, we’re on Mars, so you get a lot of red-brown-brown-red dusty environments, with some blacks and greens thrown in for measure. At least we’re not dealing with the typical sci-fi uber-gray-blue palette, right?

Needless to say, the textures and colors of the environs get quite samey. The special effects are fine—wind blowing the red-brown dust across the landscape, the white electric arc from the Technomancer’s attacks, smoky haze in the tunnels–but it’s all clearly done on a tight budget. Again, it’s a small game trying to do big things…and it only sort of reaches the finish line graphically. The game ran like a champ, saved and loaded quickly, never froze, and I can’t imagine it requires too much horsepower to run even at the highest graphical settings. Oh, and I wanted to mention the game’s length: Some reviewers (who shall remain nameless) state that the game takes about six hours to beat. As I’ve said before, I am certain these mutant videogame reviewers  live in an alternate universe where the planet spins at a different speed. But for a screenshot-taking, nook-exploring, completionist like me, it easily took 15 to 20 hours to reach the end.

Because this is such a scrappy little game with such big intentions, I want to end on a positive note: The title “Mars: War Logs” (which I always thought was ungainly—maybe downright ugly) actually fits the game perfectly in the end. During your entire playthrough, your sidekick, Innocence, is keeping a journal which chronicles all the major events in the game. (And depending on your in-game choices, Roy himself may take over as the journal’s author.) The journal itself—the war log of the title—is accessible via the pause menu, and it is updated as you finish objectives. You are not forced to examine it, and you might even completely miss it if you don’t spend some time fiddling around in the menus. The log basically recounts what you’ve already done, and includes some snazzy little drawings and screenshots of items encountered and narrative descriptions of situations resolved. I looked at it from time to time, but thought it was nothing more than a way to keep a player up to date—especially players who might have longer absences between playtimes and might need a refresher on the narrative.

But to its credit, “Mars: War Logs” actually makes the log part of the narrative itself. In the end, the journal is handed over to another in-game character for safekeeping, as a kind of leverage against certain powerful people doing questionable things. In a sense, the power of the war log is used as a means to keep certain individuals in check, lest their bad behavior chronicled in the journal is released publicly—which would most likely cause chaos. I liked that meta-rhetorical move a whole lot (maybe it’s the English professor part of me), and it gave the game some interesting gravitas. Worth playing for sure, as long as your expectations are realistic.


Magrunner: Dark Pulse (PC, 2013, Ukraine): Portal+Cthulhu=Fun!
November 8, 2013, 2:49 am
Filed under: Magrunner: Dark Pulse (PC, 2013, Ukraine)

I just don’t get it. You know how you’ll see a trailer (or some alpha gameplay or whatever) for some new, small-scale title on Youtube. And it looks very similar to that other AAA game you really love, but you still get all excited about it? You think, ‘Oh God. It looks a lot like so-and-so. I would so play that.’

But then there’s that annoying 12-year-old brat who comments: “FAIL! This is just ripping off (fill-in-the-blank-AAA-game). Ripoff! Ripoff!”

Trolls. But seriously, what’s the point? Do these prepubescent irritants seriously want the production of a game ceased just because it might resemble or mirror something else? Or do they just want the world to know that they’re smart enough to see the resemblance? My thought is always this: Who gives a shit? If some developer wants to create a new game, and it bears great resemblance to some previous title that I already hold dear, WHY THE HELL NOT? It doesn’t sully the previous game in any way. It doesn’t ruin the original experience. I just don’t get it. Would you seriously NOT have that developer release a game that may be great fun to play, regardless of whether it mimics or emulates an existing title in some way? I’ve never, ever in my life understood that. (And let’s not even get started on whether or not anything, anywhere is actually original or not. Multiple philosophers have argued there really is no such reality.)

Of course, what I’m talking about is an homage. To me, it’s kind of a shame that the word homage has been reduced to a fancy, derisive French term for ripoff. More accurately, it connotes a respect, an admiration, even a reverence toward a predecessor. Ideally, an homage pays tribute to an original idea or artifact that came before it, recognizing it as an important influence, while also attempting to expand on that original work. An homage, above all else, has honorable intentions.

Unfortunately, the reality is that most homages—at least in the videogame universe—aren’t as good (or effective or interesting or beautiful) as their predecessors. So, when most reviewers cheekily call “Magrunner: Dark Pulse” a “Portal-homage,” you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking it wasn’t worth your time.

But you’d be dead wrong.

Without question, a game like “Magrunner” wouldn’t exist if “Portal” had never materialized on our hard drives, and this is a fact that 3 a.m. Games, the Ukrainian developers, admit quite openly. But the real equation behind “Magrunner” involves more than just Portal-esque first-person puzzles. In addition to running around like a lab rat solving brain-twisting physical challenges, you also eventually have to save the world from the planet-eating, mythical anti-God known as Cthulhu. Yes, you heard right: Portal + Cthulhu = Fun!

On the surface, it seems the disparate narrative elements in “Magrunner” would never work. But playing it proves that these story pieces meld together seamlessly into an intriguing narrative that propels gameplay perfectly. In the year 2050, you play as Dax Ward. Dax is a brilliant, 18-year-old robotics genius (who, quite honestly, looks a little bit like a younger Cole MacGrath from the first “Infamous” game). Dax’s best friend is his little robotic dog, Newton, that he built as a young child. An orphan, Dax’s parents died in a mysterious accident when he was very young. For most of his life, Dax has been raised by Gamaji, a like-minded genius and a true surrogate father-figure. But Gamaji is also a “mutant” who has six arms (and he’s a killer typist). The introductory narrative hints at the fact that in the future, mutants like Gamaji are somewhat commonplace (and they may be the next evolution of humankind), but society at large discriminates against them and views them as subhumans. Anyway, it made sense that Gamaji would raise Dax upon the death of his parents; Gamaji was a close friend of the family and a kind of live-in employee. Dax’s parents were very accepting of Gamaji as a mutant, and Dax’s parents are portrayed as progressive, welcoming people who died before their time.

Another character in the game, Kram Gruckezber, is a Steve-Jobs-via-Bill-Gates Zillionaire with a bigger than life personality and an even bigger mouth. He is the developer of several technologies that have revolutionized our world. First was the creation of LifeNET—a kind of social-media-network-on-steroids that has figuratively melded the entire planet into one whole; people plug directly into LifeNET, and most individuals have, in a way, become enslaved by it. Not in a literal way, of course, but we essentially live our entire conscious and unconscious lives connected to LifeNET, and the thought of not having it would be like plunging into another Dark Age. (Is that foreshadowing I see?)

Beyond LifeNET, Gruckezber’s latest development is magnetic technology—which he calls “Magtech.” It is a transformative science that will change the way we interact with our planet, how we get our energy, and even how far into space we will be able to travel. As the game opens, Gruckezber, who is a PR heavyweight, has announced a grand, global competition where seven individuals will be chosen as “test subjects” in a deep space exploration program. The selected individuals—called Gruckezber’s “Magrunners”—will be the best and brightest and strongest, and they will compete in solving puzzles in a massive testing facility using Mag Gloves. (Sound familiar yet?)

Gamaji is a little worried when Dax says he wants to enter the contest and become one of the “Seven,” but he knows in his heart that Dax will succeed. So Gamaji helps him build his own custom Mag Glove and enters him into the contest. Dax knows he is the underdog; others in the contest have all had certain advantages, such as professional trainers in using Magtech and also tons of cash for better, more powerful and precise Mag Gloves. But with his sheer smarts and scrappy attitude, Dax believes he has a real chance.

After the graphic-novel-like introduction (covering the backstory I just mentioned),the game opens in the first test chamber, essentially. The first 15 minutes of the game provide you with simplistic puzzles that act as tutorials helping you to understand how Magtech works. Basically, using the glove, you charge objects in the test environment with either a positive or negative polarity (to attract or repel each other—and the objects conveniently change color to indicate the polarity). This is how the puzzles are solved—you push and pull crates (and even propel yourself) through the chambers to reach platforms, press buttons, break glass barriers, open doors…all that “Portal” stuff you’ve come to love. It all feels very familiar, but not in a bad way.

Unlike “Portal” however, during the game a number of characters appear as mini-holograms (that hover directly above your Mag Glove on your right hand) to talk to you, provide guidance, or to update you on other contestants’ progress. (You never see any of the other contestants as they are making their way through the maze of test chambers.) For example, six-armed Gamaji has a direct link to you throughout the game, and he hacks into Gruckezber’s servers and provides you with some insider information. Additionally, Kram Gruckezber himself appears from time to time, as well as a bitchy independent reporter named Cassandra, who (armed with her own hovercam) is covering the competition for LifeNET (and who thinks Dax doesn’t stand a chance of winning since he is an underdog). Lastly, an enigmatic, sniveling, rigid man named Xander, who is Gruckezber’s main engineer and who designed and built the testing facility, appears on the Mag Glove’s commlink from time to time. He is directly overseeing the competition and making sure the facility is performing properly. From the get-go, Dax feels that there’s something not right about Xander. Oh, is he ever correct.

Of course, the game wouldn’t be a game if things didn’t eventually go wrong. First, there are just some strange hiccups in the facility’s system—as you enter the eighth or ninth room, the lights go out, the place momentarily powers down, everyone loses communication. A worried Gruckezber shows up on the commlink asking Xander what the hell is going on. Gruckezber says he’s got several high-stakes Magtech financiers in a special room watching the competition, and that these malfunctions must cease. Xander hems and haws, but basically reassures him and all the contestants that these are temporary glitches. (Gamaji chimes in covertly on a closed communication channel to let you know that at the moment of the blackout, it looked like there was an entire separate data stream interfering from somewhere.) Then, as Xander predicted, the competition returns to normal…for a while. Dax continues puzzling his way through one chamber at a time, as the puzzle complexity increases and new mechanics are introduced. (One of those mechanics, eventually, is the addition of a hologram Newton [Dax’s little robotic dog, complete with wagging tail and floppy ears] which can be “shot” onto any flat surface to create an extra magnetic point wherever you choose—in other words, you end up seeing a lot of little hologram robotic red and green dogs sticking to walls and ceilings, and it is all perfectly cute.)

Much like in Portal, the game gets interesting when the fourth-wall (of the narrative and the testing facility) is finally broken. In “Magrunner” that happens when you enter the tenth or so testing chamber—to see a hideous, man-sized, scaly monster dragging one of the other contestants (who is clearly dead) across the sterile white floor and leaving a massive blood smear behind. As soon as Dax spots this, the monster and his prey disappear through a door. Dax’s response, basically, is: “What the hell? Did I just see what I thought I saw?” Of course, the trail of blood left behind means that, yes, it was all very real. Uh-oh.

He summons Gamaji through the communication link to seek reassurance and explain what he just witnessed. But Gamaji has no answers and is as confused as Dax. Gruckezber and Xander don’t respond to his hail at all. So Dax continues forward, now with his mind toward either finding out what the hell is going on, or to just escape the facility intact. The next few test chambers proceed normally, but then all hell breaks loose, quite literally. Entering the fifteenth (or so) testing room, you find that it has been torn asunder. Pieces of it are on fire, and a massive crack has appeared in the wall, high above and near the ceiling. Electrical cables, tubes, and other wires have been exposed behind the walls. Sparks are flying. There are also strange symbols and messages scrawled on various surfaces—in blood? Of course, the immediate comparison is the moment in “Portal” when Chell peeks behind one of the white wall tiles to see there is another world beyond the Aperture science center. It’s moments like these where, as a gamer, you either cry foul because it is so derivative (and you happen to be one of those 12-year-old trolls on Youtube). Or you run with it and see where it’s going. In the case of “Magrunner,” sticking with the game is recommended regardless of how derivative it may seem.

Using the skills you’ve learned thus far, you manage your way through the wrecked room and enter the crack in the wall. You travel through a hastily dug tunnel of earth, and you enter what appears to be an alternate-reality version of another testing chamber. Only instead of gleaming white surfaces with pretty neon accents, the test chamber is decayed, broken, warped; it is covered in dirt, rust, and moss. Busted pipes, chains, metal grates, and barrels litter the scene. The floor is covered in slimy water. Everything is very dark. From here on out, pretty much every testing chamber you encounter will become grittier, nastier, darker, and further removed from reality. The introduction of this increasingly bizarre and dangerous alternate reality is extremely well done. The rooms gradually become more and more strange, more cavernous in size (to the point of almost inducing vertigo), and more difficult to navigate. Dax cries out to Gamaji, asking him for help, looking for guidance. Though you can communicate with him fine, Gamaji says he can no longer find you on his map—essentially, you have disappeared off the radar. He quickly begins hacking Gruckezber’s computer servers to find alternate maps or some other way to help guide you. The only thing for Dax to do is move forward, continuing to puzzle his way to an exit…hopefully.

As your world has turned upside down, apparently something serious is happening topside as well: A disheveled and worried Gruckezber appears on the commlink, and apparently “some thing” is trying to get inside the room where he and the financiers have holed up. Cassandra, the intrepid reporter, is hiding in some other room somewhere, and she says she has looked out the window at the sky: “It looked strange. The light was…wrong. I’m scared.” Gamaji pops up to tell you that the news is apparently reporting that people are running rampant through the streets and committing acts of violence. He says he thinks it has something to do with LifeNET being hacked or controlled by…something.

So, what exactly has happened? If you plan on playing the game, you may want to stop reading at this point. But narratively speaking, this is where “Magrunner” asks you to take a monster-sized leap of faith: About halfway through the game, Xander (the awkward engineer and Gruckezber’s top man) appears on your commlink. He is clearly mad, nuts, bonkers, playing with half a deck, foaming at the mouth. (And from here on out, whenever he pops up on the hologram commlink, his appearance becomes more and more bizarre, to the point where his shirt is ripped off, he is covered in massive body tattoos, blood, you name it, totally cuckoo.) Anyway, Xander has apparently planned this entire thing from the beginning. The seven “Magrunners” were actually seven sacrifices that needed to be offered up so that the “old demons” may finally return to earth—in other words, that old chestnut Cthulhu and his minions. (That reminds me, I’ve got “Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth” installed on my 3D laptop, with a corrupted savegame. I’m not even halfway through it. Hmmmm.) Anyway, as the “Magrunners” have been killed off one at a time, Cthulhu has been gaining a foothold in our world. Time, as we know it, is coming to a very ugly end. The test chambers continue to grow in sheer bizarreness, including frozen images—almost like statues—of massive creatures who appear to be trying to break into our world. (These, I just have to say, are super creepy and HUGE and so fucking cool.) Also, a few more of those scaly, man-sized monsters (who are just some of Cthulhu’s minions) give chase here and there through some of the maps. Of course, Dax has no weapon, so he simply needs to puzzle-solve his way out of any jams he finds himself in.

And if you thought the game was asking you to take a narrative leap of faith before, well you just wait: As the name Cthulhu rises to the surface, Gamaji starts remembering some interesting tidbits about your parents. He tells you they were involved in some weird cult shit, apparently, when Dax was very young. Gamaji didn’t know much about it, but that cult shit may have actually been part of the reason for their untimely “accident.” Anyway, as it turns out, Dax learns (through this “feeling” he increasingly has and also through some strange, truncated visions as he travels deeper and deeper into the maze of puzzle-rooms) that he is a reincarnation of the leader of some ancient mages known as The Seven, who were involved somehow in helping to keep Cthulhu under control and away from our world. (Or something like that. Frankly, like so many of these games, just as the gameplay itself becomes more and more difficult and challenging, the story becomes more and more obtuse and tangled, and by the end of it all, my brain is a pile of mush. But I’m at least about 90% right here…maybe.)

Suffice to say, at about the three-quarters point, things truly go off the rails: Appropriately, Dax enters a portal and leaves the earth entirely. He finds himself suspended in deep space, with no worldly idea of how he is actually able to breathe, and facing increasingly complex puzzles hanging in the middle of the universe. Surrounded by stars and planets, with lightening flashing here and there, Dax sees in the background of the void a massive dark shadow in the shape of Cthulhu himself. A long, drawn-out whispery-groan is heard everywhere: “Cthulhuuuuu…” With each puzzle “space,” Dax is getting closer and closer to meeting the ancient evil one. (Also in the background is little old earth, which is slowly being covered in a dark, liquid like shadow.)

Just because I’ve spent this much time discussing the neato story here, I’ll divulge the ultimate ending. SO THIS IS THE REAL SPOILER, DEAR READER: Kooky Xander thinks that Dax will be the final sacrifice which will allow Cthulhu to reign over our world—this was his plan all along. But Dax has a different plan. At the right moment (the final puzzle in the game of course), Dax sacrifices himself by “becoming one” with the evil Anti-God, instead of allowing himself to be killed. At the very end, we see Gamaji in his home, still desperately trying to contact Dax. And suddenly, a hologram of Dax appears on Gamaji’s console. Dax tells Gamaji that he has to stay with Cthulhu, to become one with him. And as long as he does, Cthulhu will not be able to enter our world. A short epilogue explains that this is the last Gamaji ever heard of Dax, and while he desperately wishes he could see Dax one last time, he knows that if Dax were to return, he’d be bringing the end of the world back with him. The end result of this near-catastrophe has actually brought a kind of new primitive, simple life on earth. LifeNET, and most all other technologies, have been irreparably damaged and discarded. People are living in tents, communing in the streets, growing their own food, and getting back to basics the hard way. Cool stuff.

With such a clear, strong narrative, it’s no surprise that the gameplay itself is equally straightforward. Most of the time, the game gives you all of the tools you need to succeed. Aiming with the Mag Glove is accurate with mouse or a 360 gamepad (which it natively supports); like Chell in “Portal,” Dax can fall from extreme heights and not receive damage. However, falling into an abyss (of which there are many later in the game) will mean game over. There are one-hit-kill turrets strategically placed into some of the test chambers (again, just like that other game), but they don’t have cheeky personalities like their predecessors do. There is no GlaDos equivalent here either. In fact, the game is generally quite straight-faced (other than a few moments in the very beginning) and plays very seriously—something which I always appreciate.

Some reviewers have complained about difficulty spikes in the game which seem overwhelming or misplaced. They also say there are pacing problems. On this point, I do have to agree; I remember a few points where suddenly I felt I was no longer playing the same game, and I had no idea what to do or how to proceed. It is easy to spend 45 minutes staring at the screen and pondering how to traverse a deadly room only to have to go look up a walkthrough (which I did on three separate occasions). You can encounter some puzzles which don’t logically follow upon the skills you have already accrued, which points to poor development (in my opinion); for instance, in one room, I had to perfectly position the six sides of a floating cube in order to make another platform accessible in another part of the test chamber that I could not directly see. It’s the sort of thing that, after looking up the solution, you say to yourself: “How can anyone ever really figure that out? And how is any of that actually connected? I mean, come on!” Very late on in the game, there are puzzles that are not really puzzles, but are more like mechanics that have been implemented to simply test your patience and willingness to endure. One of these involves a series of a dozen or so platforms, side-by-side, which you must slowly raise one at a time using positive and negative polarities until they have all reached a certain height. Not tricky or clever, just supremely irritating and trivial-feeling—this single maneuver alone could easily take 30 minutes or more. While the game did not frequently come to a screeching halt this way, there were a few moments where the fun stalled for me.

Made in Unreal 3, the look of the game, overall, is highly polished. The environments, especially, convey the perfect atmosphere. Some of the later puzzle chambers are immense, cavernous; several of these areas have small platforms that levitate and rotate in massive circles (powered through magnetization) that you must jump onto at precise moments, sometimes forcing you to free-fall through incredible amounts of empty space before landing safely—a chilling experience. The character models look fine too, but the animations of both humans and monsters is stiff, awkward, puppet-like (par for the course, considering the game’s origins). The voices, on the other hand, are far above average (keeping that same point of origin in mind). The actors voicing the two leads, Dax and Gamaji (Brian Hanford and Nick Brimble, respectively), do a bang-up job in making us believe these characters are real and really care for one another.

If you can’t tell, I am recommending this game without any serious reservations. I’m a bit of old-schooler in this respect, but I collect videogames, and I prefer having shelf copies of titles when possible. Lucky for me, “Magrunner” was published in a retail box (with a manual and everything, oh-la-la!)—I got mine on Amazon UK (since the retail box didn’t seem to be available in the U.S.). But it is also playable as a download title on Steam and other PC game sellers. It is available for consoles too (XBLA and PSN), and I would imagine it fairs perfectly well in those environments (though it may not be as much of a looker on an older console).  When I come across underdog, derivative games like this that are engaging and immersive and just plain fun…well, this is what I live for.

Necrovision (PC, 2009, Poland): Dark, Ridiculously Dark
November 5, 2013, 4:47 am
Filed under: Necrovision (PC, 2009, Poland)

Would I sound like a jerk if I said I was including this post about “NecrovisioN” (PC, 2009, Poland) on the crappy games blog out of a sense of obligation? Yeah, I guess that sounds pretty douchey. But mark my true meaning: I actually really, really enjoyed playing this ridiculously kitchen-sinkey, bombastic, half-serious, and quite bloody mess (even though I couldn’t manage to get around to it until 4 years after its release, but we don’t talk about such matters).

However, the reality is that, at last count, Metacritic has already logged over 20 professional reviews of the game (with a lukewarm rating of 63), and a quick Google search reveals written reviews on all the major sites. Since no one can rightly call this game an “underdog title” or an “unknown gem” (using the word “gem” liberally), I feel less inclined to include it here. Although I’ve made exceptions in the past, I generally don’t write about everything I play, especially if I really feel like I have nothing to add that someone else hasn’t already spewed onto the nets. (Example: I just finished “Bioshock Infinite” [I was mildly disappointed], “Dead Island: Riptide” [more fun that it had a right to be, but still nothing more than a rerun] , the last of the “Borderlands 2” DLCs [God, am I ever sick of that game], “Gears of War: Judgment” [yup, time to move on]…and you won’t hear me write anything about any of those. Oh..uh..whoops.

But “NecrovisioN” must be here on this cruddy list or else something would be wrong—the sheer bizarre, half-baked, relentlessly questionable character of the game demands it. And if you’ve not played it (which is highly unlikely if you are one of the actual eight folks who read this blog), you are really missing out on something otherworldly.

The game was made by Polish developers The Farm 51. It came as no surprise to me that the founders of this company, Wojciech Pazdur and Kamil Bilczyński, had previous connections to the Polish developer People Can Fly (who is currently owned by Epic Games). Why so obvious? I’m probably drawing connections here that are only peripheral at best, but one feature included in “NecrovisioN” are humorously named combos, special maneuvers you perform at lightning speed which grant certain bonuses. For example a “Brute Willis” (har, har) is some combination of a headkick, a gut punch, and a rifle shot to a limb (or whatever). There are a dozen of these silly-themed moves, such as the “Angry Farmer,” the “Soccer Star,” and the “Flying Duck.” When you perform one on an enemy (usually, in my case, completely by mistake), the ridiculously-named combo pops up on screen for your enjoyment and laughter. If this sounds familiar, it should. The exact same mechanic appeared later on in People Can Fly’s over-the-top “Bulletstorm” (2010) where a “Misery” combo was where you shot an enemy in the head in order to distract him from the pain of having just kicked him mightily in the groin (har, har). Other “Bulletstorm” combos (actually, they were renamed “skillshots”) included the “Voodoo Doll,” the “Enviro-Mental,” and the ever popular “Sausage Fest.” Considering this mechanic had time to properly marinate by the time “Bulletstorm” arrived on the scene two years after “NecrovisioN,” the skillshots are much more eloquently realized in the latter game  (and also tied to in-game achievements, which was nothing short of genius). Of course, many reviewers also draw connections between “Painkiller” and “NecrovisioN” as well (“Painkiller” seems to always win these battles, by the way). These comparisons are understandable considering “Painkiller” was developed by People Can Fly and “Necrovision” by The Farm 51, practically kissin’ cousins. (Thanks to reader “unholy” for this clarification. As he said: It’s all in the family!)

The narrative behind this game is more likely to be derided than praised—let’s just get that out there. But there is a story that propels the action forward enough that the plentiful (and typically short) cutscenes do make sense. Taking place in 1916, you play as southern-accented Simon Bukner, a World War 1 American conscripted into the British Army. At first, dropkicking German soldiers seems normal enough (if such a thing can be said), but before you know it, you are instead wrestling with vampires, demons, and zombies on the muddy battlefields. Where did these supernatural foes originate? Well, stories circulating among the troops (which you find in the form of hand-scrawled notes and letters home on the battlefield) hint at strange infections turning soldiers into otherworldly creatures, a secret lab run by some insane scientist named Zimmerman, and underground caves full of strange red gems.

fb5Simon takes most of it in stride with semi-corny one-liners—after all, if an enemy is bum-rushing you, who cares if it’s a German soldier with a bayonette or a hell hound with snarling, slavering jaws? The response is the same: Shoot it! Eventually, amongst the general, constant chaos, a demonic looking face appears in the sky and chants some mumbo-jumbo about a hero that will be revealed to save the world (and, of course, you are that savior). This is the point where you are introduced to the vampires—a mystic race of giant, underground dwellers who have been right here on earth for centuries (although we’ve never actually seen them). Continuing to uncover pieces of the narrative, you eventually understand that the nasty, megalomaniacal German scientist Jonas Zimmerman has conducted some experiments in various battlefield locations which have summoned demons to earth—demons who have been locked into combat with the vampires in the past. And this time, during their visit, these demons want to overthrow the vampires, who, by the way, are actually earth’s kind, but quiet overseers and protectors. Are you lost yet?

Interestingly, and pretty quickly, you locate Zimmerman on the battlefield (a mini-boss) and put him out of his misery. Game over? No, not quite. The problem, the vampires then relay to you, is that the demons have gotten a foothold in their underground world, and they will destroy the entire planet if they overthrow the vampires. You’ve got to get to the underground and eliminate the threat. Why, exactly, the vampires can’t defend themselves is never made entirely clear (or, at least, it flew past my head), but whatever. So, this is the point where regular old Simon Bukner becomes a semi-vampiric entity with some limited supernatural powers (and a down-pitched voice that sounds like Barry White) who travels from the mundane, muddy battlefield and into the strange, massive, abstract underground dimensions which constitute the second half of the game—a welcome change of scenery. There are three endings to the game, depending on the difficulty setting you’ve chosen at the outset. I won’t (too seriously) ruin them here, but they generally range from “Was it all a dream?” to “I’m the king of the underworld!”

Now that I’ve butchered the already-butchered narrative this game offers, I’m going to run into trouble trying to provide any real insights. Honestly, I’ve got nothing new to say about “NecrovisioN” that other reviewers haven’t touched upon—this is all rather well-tread territory. So, instead of pretending to say something original and failing, I thought I’d take the rest of this post to reflect on some of the major critical statements others have written, agreeing and disagreeing, and pointing out inconsistencies.

First up is jkmedia at Gamezone, who writes: “The last half of this game is far superior to the first.” This observation is dead-on target. Right at the three-quarters-point of “NecrovisioN” (after about 4 hours of trudging across muddy battlegrounds), do things truly get interesting. As mentioned, this is the point at which you finally get to confront Zimmerman—which has been your sole target—in boss-battle fashion. Honestly, as the showdown commenced, I thought the game was going to come to an abrupt and unsatisfying ending. But no! This is actually the point at which the only-slightly warped WW1 shooter becomes truly otherworldly: After killing Zimmerman and supplanting him, you get to travel underground to the vampire realm, you get a cool hand weapon that shoots fireballs and can resurrect zombies to fight at your side, your character’s voice becomes demon-like (in other words, a southern-fried Barry White)—all the kind of stuff you expect in a game like this. Some argue that it takes “NecrovisioN” too long to get interesting and fun in this regard, but I disagree. I think the longish lead-up to the real weirdness gives the new powers and environments real punch, and it certainly makes for a longer game (which is something I bitch about only occasionally).

On this point, as one or two reviewers conjectured, the lower scores given by some critics may be evidence that they, indeed, did not play all the way through it (having only experienced some of less crazy, more mundane first half). And at this, I repeat my refrain: No critics should be allowed to review a game that they haven’t suffered all the way through, period. Where else in the world do you see reviewers only reading half a book or watching half a movie and then rendering a verdict? It would be considered criminal—and worse, unfair. But lately, I have actually read some professional game reviews that contain this very confession: “Well, I only played 4 hours of so-and-so before turning it off and writing this review. But I feel confident in saying…blah, blah, blah.” To them I say: Shut the fuck up and go play the goddamned game to the credits, you loser.

Next up is some disagreement: Kevin VanOrd at Gamespot calls the game “moody” and that it “has a certain gravitas”—in other words, a seriousness (though he admits the “ghosts, goblins, zombies, and robot scorpions on the battlefield of WW1” premise would be pretty difficult to account for, historically speaking). Similarly, Play(Poland) notes the anguished, lengthy letters and diaries from soldiers read aloud on the loading screens (and collected throughout the game); these chronicle the last thoughts of conscripted German and British men now dead who were pining for the company of loved ones back home, dying of wounds and starvation, and shamefully hiding from battle out of fear. On the contrary, Tom Orry at Videogamer advises players to “leave your brain on the installation screen and you should have fun with NecrovisioN.” In kind, a Games(tm) review called “NecrovisioN” nothing but a “mindless headlong charge.” So, which is it? Is the game attempting a serious (albeit warped) tone, or is it merely thoughtless, headkicking drivel? As an answer, Steve Butts at IGN decides this inconsistency is one of the inherent problems of NecrovisioN: Regardless of its lunacy, the story “insists on taking itself seriously. If the story had decided whether it wanted to be tongue-in-cheek or tragic, then it would be a bit easier for me to get on board and enjoy the ride,” he says. I think Steve’s got a valid point; the game is undoubtedly characterized by this emotional polarity. Should I laugh hysterically? Or should I seriously ponder the vagaries of war? But instead of seeing it as a weakness, I personally consider this polarity  a strength. This central lack of clarity about how I am supposed to respond to the game actually gives NecrovisioN a kind of “dangerous” quality, while certainly making it stand out from the crowd; my emotional response to the game becomes a moving target, leaves me vaguely off-balance, makes me unsure. Those upended feelings are appropriate in a  bizarre universe like this one. In essence, for me, it works on a meta-level. Whether or not any of this is actually intentional on the developers’ parts…well, let’s leave that one alone.

Next up, graphics and gameplay: I always get a kick when I read reviewers discussing the graphical quality of a game. Why? Well according to these spectrum of folks, the exact same game can be both drop dead gorgeous and butt ugly. Honestly, if you want a little laugh, choose any game off the top of your head and read 10 or so reviews of it. You’ll hear everything from “such-and-such a game is decidedly beautiful to look at” to “such-and-such a game is homely and headache-inducing.” Who should you believe? None of them, probably. (And I always wonder how the hell is such disparity possible, but whatever.) Reviews of “NecrovisioN” are no different in this regard. Here are some actual opposing quotes copied and pasted for your pleasure: “The graphics are outdated” versus “The graphics are of average quality” versus “Great visuals” versus “The textures seem a bit muddy in places” versus “The lighting and effects are of great quality” versus “Melee is a polygon mess” versus “It performs great while managing to look great as well” versus “Textures lack detail and human character models are poor” versus “There are some stunning and visually striking levels.” Yeah, you want to talk about a ping-pong match being played by a dozen people, there you have it—in other words, you figure it out because I can’t.

Personally, I Iiked how the game looked; it provided a creepy, dirty, dark, dangerous atmosphere that felt like the battlefields of hell (which is the point, not to mention the actual location). Here’s two visual tips for the intrepid living in the year 2013 (or beyond): 1) ”NecrovisioN” seems to struggle a bit in widescreen environments. Luckily, there is a free widescreen field-of-view (FOV) fix widely available if you are playing in a 16:9 or 16:10 aspect ratio (like on your television). I found it here: Using it requires some configuration file tweaking, but it’s simple enough if you follow the directions which are included. If the link is toast, just Google “NecrovisioN Widescreen Fix.” 2) If you are interested in putting an even finer shine on the game (by increasing anti-aliasing, using a reworked bloom effect, further balancing gamma, etc.) download the free SweetFX application, install, configure, and run the game through that, which is what I did for these screenshots. At the moment, SweetFX is located here:

Overall, the mixture of traditional WWI-era firearms and nontraditional hellspawned fireball throwers makes the game unique. The “kitchen sink” approach to the opponents—the aforementioned enemy soldiers, dead enemy soldier zombies, hulking monsters, mechanical nightmares, ghosts, and wizards–works perfectly within the crazy context of the game itself. Lastly, even though the main gist is clobbering the kamikaze opponents, maps are surprisingly large, and there are many hidden areas to explore. The game rewards your exploration with power-ups (vampire artifacts) and other loot (weapons, ammo), so have at it. What more could you want?

I’d say, “There. I’m done. I added ‘NecrovisioN’ to the blog. Now leave me alone.” But not so fast! Sitting right there on the shelf is the 2009 “NecrovisioN” standalone expansion/prequel “Lost Company.” Oh crap, here we go again.

Retrovirus (PC, 2013, USA): Airsickness Bags At The Ready!
November 5, 2013, 3:54 am
Filed under: Retrovirus (PC, 2013, USA)

Okay, for Christ’s sake! So I never played any of the classic “Descent” series of games. Just call me uncultured and shoot me while you’re at it! I guess that little fact makes me completely unqualified to jot down a quick personal discussion of “Retrovirus” (PC, 2013, USA). Jesus! Either you folks are real assholes, or I have an incredibly deep-seated inferiority complex—or possibly both.

Oh, hi there! Uh…have you been sitting there for long? Have I been talking to myself again? How terribly embarrassing. All I wanted to say is that I finished playing this lovely little, colorful, six-axis shooter (also called a 6DOF game, six degrees of freedom) from American developer Cadenza Interactive about three months ago. Unfortunately, I never got around to adding it to the crappy blog. I’m going to fix that oversight now, come hell or high water.

Cadenza, an indie developer of approximately 20 folks located on the left coast of the USA (California to be exact), has scant previous titles on its resume, namely a turret defense game known as “Sol Survivor.” (The team is also currently working on an interesting project called “The Wanderer,” where you play as a western-themed robot attempting to escape a dying planet—sounds like my kinda crap.) Anyway, the developer began as a loose collective in 2006, was incorporated in 2009, and eventually got its first game onto Steam in 2010. Like many indies, “Retrovirus” (as Cadenza’s second official game) began its life as a crowd-funded wannabee. The team created a Kickstarter campaign in June of 2012. Although the project garnered over 1,000 backers to raise about $30,000, that wasn’t even half of the $75,000 goal the team had set for themselves. “Funding unsuccessful” was Retrovirus’s tagline at this point in time.

Thanks be to the gaming gods, however, that “Retrovirus” didn’t simply pass into obscurity like so many other un-Kick-started games do. No, instead the unbelievable happened. I’m paraphrasing poorly here from a story the Penny Arcade Report wrote on the life and near-death of “Retrovirus,” but a single “angel investor” (with some cash to burn) named Chris Davies essentially told the fellas at Cadenza: “I’m a real fan of this game. I must be able to play it. If your Kickstarter doesn’t succeed, I can fund you myself.” Of course, Cadenza’s founder, Spencer Roberts, and lead designer and writer Nick Mazmanian thought this was unfunny, malicious spam. But sometimes important things come in little unsolicited emails. As it turned out, Chris Davies wasn’t a spammer, and the game ended up on Steam several months later regardless of the failed Kickstarter all because of one fan’s crazy interest (and healthy bank account). So, if you ever play “Retrovirus,” you know exactly who to thank.

This happy ending only makes playing “Retrovirus” that much more of a colorful joy. Before discussing the gameplay and narrative, I suppose it’s time to get all the “Descent” references out of the way. Unlike uncultured moi, you probably know all about the early PC game “Descent,” which was a six-degrees-of-freedom first-person title developed by Parallax Software and released in 1995. It spawned several expansion packs and two sequels, so it was clearly very popular for its time (and still today by a dedicated fanbase, all of whom refuse to uninstall it).  In “Descent,” as a “Material Defender,” you fly a spaceship through a labyrinth of asteroids and must destroy virus-infected mining robots. The real trick of the game was being able to successfully orient yourself while being able to move in all six axes in zero-gravity–and being able to make offensive moves and defend your ship against counterattacks. If this sounds like it might induce vertigo, you’re right.

fb5“Retrovirus” very clearly takes its inspiration from its predecessor. Only in this iteration, we aren’t flying spaceships nor dodging robots on asteroids. No, in this updated version of “Descent,” our perspective is decidedly more microscopic in nature: In “Retrovirus” you are an agent of a computer’s antivirus program—for all intents and purposes, okay, okay, like a tiny spaceship—flying through the innards of a computer. (No computer I know ever looked like this though!) Your sole purpose is to eradicate a worm that is malevolently tearing through the operating system, level by level. Whisking around the colorful, abstract spaces, you hunt down rotten bits of hardware and software, zapping nasty virus tendrils with your gun (or dual guns in some cases).

The “guns,” while looking more like wireframe rectangles than anything else, fall into vaguely familiar categories of shotgun, rifle, pistol, laser, etc., and all of them are highly upgradeable throughout the campaign—which lasted about 15 hours (for slowpoke me).  While your “character” is silent, and there are no actual “people” present in the game per se, there are personalities involved in the campaign, which dabbles in multiple narratives at once. For example, the antivirus program itself is voiced by a smart, young female voice—a typical HQ know-it-all–who tells you where to go, what to watch out for, and what the invading worm seems to ultimately be seeking. Additionally you meet other “personalities” within the confines of the computer. For instance (if I remember correctly), the email manager is a goofy, careless, self-absorbed female voice, and the central processor is a king-like figure, a colonel who demands to know—in military exhortations–what is going on (as antivirus bullets are whizzing past his head).

fb3To be honest, the story doesn’t do much to propel the gameplay. Essentially, you are always once step behind the virus as it eats its way through the system, ultimately targeting key components (ultimately a vault where virus definitions are stored) and lashing out at you. Thankfully, this “thin narrative” is not the only story in the game. “Retrovirus” includes many collectibles, specifically emails, which tell at least two other tales. One details the life of a frustrated creative designer who argues with clients who are always requesting mundane, boring designs. Another is a heated exchange of messages between two hackers who argue about how, where, and why to launch an aggressive attack on a government or corporate entity (or something like that). How much of these secondary stories is revealed is up to you and is dependent upon your exploratory abilities. Personally, I found the writing to be confusing on all accounts—I could just barely keep these various stories straight throughout the campaign. In addition, since the entire game takes place in an abstract space without physical human beings hanging about, this made it even more difficult for me to make a personal connection to the stories being told. But thumbs up for Cadenza Interactive getting a story into this game at all (let alone three). “Retrovirus” clearly could have just been a shallow six-axis shooter reboot without depth. And this game, even if confusing in the story department, has depth.

The abstract setting provided the developer with a great opportunity to create some stunning visuals, and Cadenza clearly ran with the concept. The game is a looker, simply put—especially on a large screen at 1080p. I found it even rendered well in stereoscopic 3D—though with the six-degrees of movement, 3D may not be recommended (unless you’ve got barf bags handy). Visually, the small, cramped spaces that begin the game eventually spill into massive circular and cubed areas; some of the spaces look very organic, broken, rock-like with dark, cavernous atmospheres; others are made of perfect 90-degree angles and bathed in iridescent colors that don’t exist in nature. Many of the areas always seem to hint at real-world counterparts—like a big, boxy electric blue space shot through with clear tubes may appear to be some sort of warehouse or transit station, and a red area with a white table-like disc at the center could represent a small sitting area. Additionally, some areas later in the game appear to represent outside park areas or glittering cityscapes. But of course there are no boxes, chairs, lamps, tables, trees, buildings, or anything that resembles real-world items to be found anywhere. In our current market filled with videogames that try their hardest to represent real-world items as realistically as possible for purposes of immersion, the artsy, colorful, abstract environments in “Retrovirus” were a welcome change of pace for me.

fb7There are probably many other aspects of this game I could gush over, but having played it a few months ago…well, my memory isn’t what it used to be. One last item I do want to note, however. Many reviewers seem to think that vertigo-sensitive players should steer clear of “Retrovirus” due to the six-axis movement in the game. (Even I couldn’t stop myself from mentioning airsickness in the title to this post!) But on a more reasonable note: I’ve had some seriously bad cases of motion-sickness in my life (mostly as a vomitous pre-teen in the backseat of the car on a cross-country trek), but never once did I feel a sense of vertigo playing this title. Nor did I ever lose my bearings, which way was up or down, or which way I needed to go. It also didn’t make me sleepwalk. So honestly, the need for meclizine (i.e. motion-sickness pills) may be slightly overstated.

Walking Dead: Survival Instinct (PC, 2013, USA): Blissfully Ignorant
November 5, 2013, 3:10 am
Filed under: Walking Dead – Survival Instinct (PC, 2013, USA)

Well, here I am again defending another shitty first-person-zombie-shooter. Life truly is cyclical, isn’t it?

But I feel compelled to come to the aid of Terminal Reality’s TV-show-cash-in-gamelike-substance “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct” because it is not nearly as horrendous as the majority of reviews (and the painful 32 Metacritic score) proclaim. I mean, it’s bad (it’s being included here on the blog, ain’t it?) but it’s not that bad.

What appears to be a forgiving stance on my part is most likely simple, blissful ignorance though. By that, I mean I know practically nothing of AMC’s blockbuster television serial upon which the game is based. After sitting through three-quarters of the pilot episode, I changed the channel. The characters were just too damned stupid for me to continue watching. More ashamed, I’m equally ignorant of the Kirkman graphic novels—but I’m just not a “graphic novel” kinda guy. To date, my only familiarity with this franchise is the Telltale Games episodic “interactive stories” (I guess you could call them games), and, like many who “played” them, I found them immensely moving.

Having outed myself as a non-Walking-Dead-fanboy, I can safely say I had absolutely no expectations going into “Survival Instinct.” I didn’t expect the character models to look like those actual people starring in the show (whoever they are); I didn’t expect the game’s story to be gripping in the way millions of viewers apparently find the TV show to be; and I didn’t expect to feel like I was immersed in the detail of the universe the serial has created. I was just playing to see if the game was any fun…you know, as a game.

So, to answer that question, I instead brought to “Survival Instinct” my knowledge of and experience with (probably far too many) zombie shooters across the ages, such as they are. And when I ponder those zombie (and zombie-like) shooters, it is safe to say that the majority of them are bad, bad, bad. Thankfully, there are exceptions like “Left 4 Dead” (2007) and its various iterations. But I think we can agree and (lovingly) say that zombie shooter games generally are awful. (That’s why we like them). From the spectacular flops like “Land of the Dead: Road to Fiddler’s Green” (2005) and “You Are Empty” (2007) to relatively unknown crapfests like “Evil Resistance/Moscow and Dead” (2008) and “Bloodline,” (2004), counting every single bad back-from-the-dead game would occupy all your fingers and toes—the ones that haven’t been bitten off, that is.

But as I’ve said in other posts here, there are those select few who have a dormant zombie-killing gene that suddenly reanimates whenever a zombie game appears on the market. And, like the zombies themselves, we shamble over to the game shelf, pull down a copy and begin helplessly groping for our wallets. And it is in this vein that I can honestly say I enjoyed playing “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct” the majority of the time. I couldn’t help it, but from my pretty well-informed gaming perspective, it was a bit like playing “Fiddler’s Green” all over again, but this time with updated graphics, some more bells and whistles, a much improved soundtrack and narrative. Seriously, what’s not to love?

Again, since I am a non-franchise-fanboy, the narrative here (if there is one?) is alien to me. But apparently the game covers a time period before the start of the television show, a prequel for all intents and purposes. It focuses exclusively on the hard-nosed hillbilly Daryl Dixon (and, later on, his brother Merle—neither of whom, interestingly, are very nice, likeable, smart, or sympathetic characters) at the apex of the zombie-making event. During the course of the game, you travel from town to town collecting supplies, avoiding or killing zombies, and meeting other survivors who can join your troupe. Ultimately, by the end of the game, the survivors are headed to Atlanta, which is where the first season of the television series takes place.

As far as I could tell, there is no over-arching narrative here, however. There are, of course, mission objectives, but other than attempting to stay alive, the characters generally seemed to just be “on the move,” wandering down the road from map point A to map point B, from chapter to chapter. And speaking about that, the chapter structure of the game is both interesting and limiting in equal measures. Let me explain in a generic way: In many of the chapters, you begin by stopping in a small town. Your never-ending mission will be to collect enough gas to continue, since you are perpetually running low. (A “mission start” screen allows you to suit up for your resource run, showing you what weapons you are currently equipped with, which weapons you can yank out of the car’s storage if you choose, how much gas remains in your vehicle, and any passengers traveling with you. Once prepped, you enter the mission.) In my opinion, the maps are expertly crafted–in other words, they avoid feeling linear while they are, ultimately, completely linear. Unfortunately, the actual playable area for each town or area is limited (meaning that while visually you may be able to see several miles down the road or into the forests on your left and right, invisible walls keep you hemmed in). So, you walk down the road a bit into town, fight some zombies, then jog left, open a store door and investigate it, go out the back door and over a fence continuing to investigate, fight more zombies through some backyards, enter a trailer park which you also investigate, then backtrack to the main road which you continue down, through another storefront, and then down an alley, up a ladder, and across a roof. Along the way, you are collecting a variety of supplies—guns, ammo, new melee weapons, gas, food–and you may also meet other survivors (which I’ll discuss in a moment). Your character has 10 inventory slots to fill, and the car you drive has slots which you can transfer items into. (New cars, with more or less passenger seats, storage space, or better gas mileage can be unlocked if you find the keys as you investigate the various maps.) Anyway, while the movement is not completely linear and backtracking is common, the maps are condensed and walled in—you simply cannot wander anywhere you like. Typically, every chapter ends with you returning to your car (pursued by a horde of riled up zombies) to move on.

Although the locations change from chapter to chapter (while most of them are small towns, one chapter takes place in an eerie train yard, another in a super-dark campground, another in an abandoned CDC tent city, and there’s the requisite creepy hospital–this variety is welcome), ultimately the game as a whole feels disconnected. Each chapter does not feel integrated into the one before or after it—in essence this does not feel like a “world” as much as it does a series of discrete maps for you to puzzle your way through in first person. Don’t get me wrong—as mentioned, the individual areas themselves are fairly well constructed and interesting, but they all seem to exist in separate voids. (Some of this might be the result of how the game progresses from chapter to chapter—while you are, ostensibly, entering your vehicle and driving down the highway to your next destination, you never see or control any of that action. It all happens with a minimal animation showing a line moving across a hand-drawn map, with some forgettable voiceovers in the background from the main characters as they ride along in the car.) To me, this fragmentation, this lack of unity, is a weakness. However, this same structure allows for some slightly interesting choices: Once a chapter ends, the same roadmap appears on screen, and it shows where your next destination will be. However, to get to that destination, you can choose to either take back roads (which burn more fuel but provide greater chances at finding resources), regular streets (which burn medium fuel with medium chances at finding goods), or the highway (which burns less fuel but provides the least opportunity for scrounging). It is important to note that this is just a resource-management tactic, and the choice doesn’t actually change what happens or what you do (or even see) in the main story. You still always end up at the same point B on the map regardless of the chosen route. But if you choose the scenic route, for example, before you reach your final destination, you may be presented with an optional detour to find resources, such as scavenging through a zombie-infested truck stop, a short alleyway between some houses in a neighborhood, or a section of zombie-blasted highway—these maps are just like the main mission maps, but are scaled way down in size. These optional detours seem to be generated randomly, and they unfortunately do repeat themselves. (I found myself in the EXACT SAME truck stop three times during my playthrough, which felt kind of cheap). But the detours can be ignored if you choose to plow through the main missions only. (Note: If you don’t have enough fuel to reach your destination, regardless of what route you choose, the game will also force one of these resource-seeking mini-missions on you in order to proceed.)

Also, there’s one other resource-management choice at the beginning of a chapter during your “mission start” screen:  If you have picked up survivors along the way during your previous mission (there are usually one or two hiding out in various corners of buildings or alleyways) and they are riding in your car with you, you can arm them and send them out on missions to find fuel, food, or ammo (or you can simply have them stay at the car). Note that you don’t actually see them on their mission, which takes place concurrently while you are on your mission—nor do you cooperatively play on the same maps with them, or even bump into them along the way. Literally, you just assign them a weapon and a goal, and they disappear off screen as you begin your mission. You find out at the end of the chapter whether they returned to the car, and with what resources, or if they “never returned” because they were eaten (usually because you didn’t arm them or heal them properly at the start of the chapter). While this kind of mechanic seems ripe for gameplay opportunities, honestly it’s kind of dumb. It’s nothing more than a half-assed resource-management-minigame.

One of the reasons this mechanic fails is because none of the characters are fleshed out. If they get eaten when you send them on a mission, who gives a shit? And when they do die, you don’t even see it happen. Duh. You are just told by on-screen text at the end of your mission that so-and-so never returned. But it doesn’t matter: Other than having their own names, they are not distinct in any real way. The survivors you meet and who can join your group have the personalities of traffic cones, and you barely interact with any of them. When you first encounter them, they might relay some short, zombie-laden tale of woe, but then that’s it. They may ask if they can join you, but you aren’t given a prompt to reply. They just sort of automatically join you in your car. But note: Even this doesn’t happen right away! Instead, if you meet a survivor in mid-mission, they say they would like to join your group. Then you turn around to continue the mission, but they just stand there—they don’t follow and fight alongside you or anything complex like that. It’s only at the end of the chapter you are told that this or that survivor has joined your group. Dumb, disconnected, half-assed. There are a variety of other daft design choices that plague this game (don’t get me started on the too-infrequent checkpoints where dying sends you all the damn way back to the beginning of the chapter), but I’ll let you experience them for yourself.

Many reviews I read were quite disparaging of the game’s graphics. I am an unapologetic graphics whore, and I have to say that generally the look of this game—which falls somewhere between graphic-novel cartoony and realistic–did not disappoint me the way it did others. But I think I know why: I was actually able to compare, side-by-side in real time and on exactly the same 65” plasma screens, the graphical quality of the Xbox 360 console version of the game and the PC port of the game. And there is no comparison, simply put. The PC version, when played at 1920 x 1080, looks markedly sharper and clearer in just about every way. Some of the large texture areas—like massive brick walls or lawns of mowed grass—look cheap, too uniform, funky. But I play enough real crap that these details didn’t annoy me. There are ample opportunities to stealth-kill zombies when approached (in crouching position) from behind, and accompanying these kills are some decent-enough animations of up-close shivs through eyeballs, throats, and foreheads. As I mentioned previously, this felt like dancing with my old friend “Fiddler’s Green” who has undergone a significant facelift.

Above the acceptable graphics, there are a few interesting touches that help to make an overall positive impression. While none of them are revolutionary, these are random items that, in conjunction with one another, raise the game to a slightly higher level than the complete garbage most reviewers called the game.

First, with melee weapons (of several varieties), there are two attacks—one weak and one strong. The weaker attack, which is basically a baseball swing horizontally from right to left, is accomplished by quickly tapping the fire button. For a stronger attack that can take a zombie down with an over-the-head blow (the movement is a vertical strike), you lay on the trigger for a slightly longer time (of course opening yourself up to more damage by a zombie when one is in close proximity). I realize this isn’t revolutionary. However, the main reason I point this out is because these essentially different melee attacks, with significantly different amounts of damage being dealt, raise the game above a typical button-mashing experience that many reviewers seem to say it is. The two attacks truly can be used in conjunction with one another (if played carefully) for some effective, blood-smattering, face-to-face encounters (which is about every 30 seconds, by the way). To add further variety, there is a “shove” function which doesn’t deal damage but is a tactical maneuver which can be used to create space between you and those slathering jaws.

And permit me to say that this game actually understands the slowly mounting tension of having a decayed corpse closing in you. You need to swing that melee weapon, but when? Here he comes, Mr. Rotten, groaning and oozing and with his extended arms. If you swing too soon, he’ll get a hit in. If you swing too late, he’ll get a hit in. And you can’t simply turn and run—I mean, you can, of course—but you’ll just be running from one encounter and into another, similar encounter elsewhere. In this way, “The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct” gets the job done. There is a thread of low-energy tension that runs through every encounter—whether it is a one-on-one smack-fest, or if you have sought false refuge on the hood of a wrecked car as a dozen of them encircle you. There are some areas in the game where running away is the only choice (the walkers are endless), and almost all areas will repopulate (to a lesser degree) once you are certain you’ve cleared them all out (a mechanic which irritates me to no end in any game). But overall, this is surprisingly not as annoying as it sounds, and it helps to keep you constantly on guard.

Anyway, what’s with all the melee stuff? There are several reasonable attempts at realism within the game. For example, any gun (pistols, shotguns, rifles) can take a zombie’s head off in one hit if aimed carefully. But guns are loud and will draw more flesh-eaters to your location (as will your flashlight in dark areas); for this reason, melee weapons are the preferred weapon of choice in most one-on-one situations. Even in relatively abandoned areas, I thought I could get away with a few headshots, but walkers would come out of the woodwork somehow in response to the shot. Generally, using a firearm should be reserved for emergency situations only. Of note, later in the game you do acquire a bow that can be used for silent headshots, but there are limited arrows (though they can be retrieved from your targets if you can find them). I found the bow kind of difficult (and slow) to use, personally.

Next, as is typical in almost every zombie game since “Fiddler’s Green,” zombies are pretty darn good at bashing down wooden doors to get at you. And they do so with relish in this game. However, attempting to tear down a metal door is a different story entirely. And this game has metal doors in it, here and there, in places where you would expect them: emergency exits at the theater, security doors in the hospital, and interrogation rooms in the police station. It is a creepy experience to walk closely to a metal door and here the hollow banging—like on an empty oil drum—and groans from zombies on the other side who know you are there but can’t remember how to turn a doorknob. Usually, going through the metal door is the only path through the level, so you brace yourself and charge in. It works to ramp up tension (at least for me), as well as providing a bit of breathing room to check your inventory before jumping back into combat.

Furthermore, there are some superior jumpscares in the game, some of which are not scripted. In essence, the game will punish you for attempting to run through a level at full tilt. Here’s what I mean: In the hospital level, I did my best to creep silently about and in the dark. However, after being cornered by five zombies, it was game over. Being sent back to the beginning of the level (irritated), my urge was to tear through the repeated sections at maximum speed—especially since I knew the location of all the danger zones and could proactively navigate them. But not so fast, Bucko! The location of some zombies (and also collectibles) are generated randomly and will inevitably catch you off guard. So, as I ran through the hospital corridors feeling perfectly safe to get back to where I had previously died, suddenly a zombie would tear out of a door complete with orchestra blast in my headphones (which didn’t happen the first time around), and I was suddenly in a grapple-for-my-life situation (usually ending in death)! More than once, these unexpected encounters had me jumping out of my seat and cursing loudly. I know in light of today’s software, this is not revolutionary. Still completely unscripted moments  like these provide genuine goosebumps. SMALL SPOILER: One other jumpscare (this one is scripted) takes place in a ranger’s station at a campground. As you talk to a petrified woman over the ranger’s radio, you are pretty darn sure the ranger is nowhere to be found in the abandoned facility…but then he VERY SUDDENLY  appears (again, right in your face–and, no surprise, he’s hungry). SPOILER ENDS.

Here’s another nice inclusion: Since noise plays a big role in alerting the zombies, stealth comes into play, as mentioned. And the stealth mechanic in the game works generally well. But the stealthiest of plans can be interrupted when someone in your party screams over the radio hanging from your belt, awakening every enemy in the room you are trying to tiptoe past! Or when you accidentally smack an abandoned car with your weapon, the anti-theft alarm explodes into life (I know, I know this is “borrowed” from “Left 4 Dead,” who probably borrowed it from someone else—but if it works, it’s worth stealing). The blaring noise in your headphones itself is enough to make you jump, but the real reason you run is because the approaching wall of walkers is not survivable. There are several moments like these in the game—which would be funny if they weren’t so dire– which really shine.

Another detail: Of course, some zombies appear inert (propped up against the wall in a sitting position), but when you draw near, they become animated and begin to rise (sometimes very slowly and sometimes more quickly). This is practically a given in a first-person zombie game by now, but there’s one nice catch, a sort of on-your-toes mini-game: If you can get close enough to deliver a head blow to a sitting zombie before it becomes completely upright, it is a one-hit kill. Otherwise, if you wait until it is on its feet and shambling towards you, you are looking at three or four hits to bring it down (depending on the melee weapon). This often entices you to rush forward to take a slowly rousing zombie down with one hit—but it can also be risky since you don’t know what else may be waiting for you beyond that very spot.

I guess for those who harbor that dormant zombie-killing gene (you know who you are), you probably already dismissed the bashing this game has received by just about every major review site. I presume you’ve already bought the game (shit, get it used, cheap), and wrestled your way through it. From my perspective as someone with generally low expectations of everything (and who has played some truly poor zombie-killing titles), this one isn’t nearly as bereft of fun as others would have you think. Of course, being blissfully ignorant of the source material here probably helps some too.